This week's Loss Letter could be a universal map for staying Present in uncertainty and conflicting emotions. Our generous author sets the gold standard for boundary-making with family. She has chosen to remain anonymous but we can all know her feelings reflected in our own hearts.
My sister calls this “pre-grieving”. This ache that hits our guts from time to time. Mostly we are getting through the days, doing logistics with the hospice workers and the day nurse, working the feeding tubes or trying to convince you not to yank out your IV just because it’s pissing you off. Mostly we are doing. But sometimes we stop and do feeling and man, that hurts. I watch you play with my baby son, wiggling your hands for him to grab, and I’m choking back sobs because each time could be the last time and I don’t want to waste any of this time crying. I don’t want you to see me crying.
I’ve told people, the ones I’m closest to, the ones who will get it, that it would be easier if my real dad was dying. And that feels weird to say but it’s true. My grief for the loss of him would be uncomplicated, unadulterated heartbreak, and the realest truest part of me feels grateful that the loss of him isn’t here yet. This feeling, the getting ready to lose you, it’s thorny. It’s messy and dirty and there’s relief in there somewhere.
“It would be easier if my real dad was dying. My grief for the loss of him would be uncomplicated, unadulterated heartbreak...”
It’s hard to explain. I say my BioDad is dying and the people who don’t know my story but care about me, they check in — how’s your dad? I’m so sorry about your father. And there’s a rush in me to explain. He’s not my real father. I’ve never called him dad. This isn’t that big a deal. But that’s not completely accurate. This is a Big Deal. It’s just not the deal the casual observer thinks it is. I love you — you know that. But I don’t like you and I don’t think I ever will.
You were never my dad. And yet, the gifts you’ve given me deserve honor. They are some of the brightest blessings of my life.
You left before I was born; you weren’t ready to put down your bottles and straws and rock-star dreams, and my mom gave you an ultimatum — Be a father, or don’t, but you don’t get to come in and out of this kid’s life at your leisure. It was the hardest line to draw and I’m so grateful she did. When you left you left a father-shaped hole and when I was thirteen months old, my mom met a man who fell in love with both of us. He stepped into the father-shaped hole and the edges closed up around him. He married my mom and adopted me in the same month. My dad learned to braid for my waist length hair, he came to every ballet recital, watched me grow up and loved every phase. He is the only person I’ve ever called my Dad and he’s a gift you gave me.
By choosing not to be my father, you left room for the father I needed to step in and be my Dad.
When I was 21 you came back into my life. Two years sober, you were on your 9th step and looking to make amends. You sought out my mother and I, you wanted to make things right. As far as I was concerned, things were already right and my family was already whole. I didn’t have a lot of room in my heart for you at first but you had an ace up your sleeve. When you came back you brought my sisters. I grew up with three brothers, tumbling like a pile of puppies, so many years younger than me and stair-step close in age. They barely even had names, they were just The Boys. I’d never missed out on having a dad but I’d spent my childhood dreaming of sisters. So when I met you and saw the photos of your daughters, I thawed a little. My sisters are bright and funny and feminist. They are curious and wounded and brilliant. They are less than a year apart, each other’s best friend. It’s been 16 years now that we have known each other. I’ve known my sisters for almost as long as I didn’t know them. I’ve gotten to watch them grow from gawky tweens in sparkle eye-shadow to feisty gorgeous women, pursuing career goals and finding their way in the world. Over the years we have built a friendship. I’ve gotten to watch them cuddle my son, smell his baby head and grow comfortable with the weight of him in their arms. I’ve gotten to make eye contact with them over your sickbed, sharing between our eyes the anguish of watching you say watermelon every time you mean woman, or start telling the story of who you gave your guitars away to for the seventeenth time this afternoon. We’ve gotten to scold you together when you make sexist comments about the nurses, eye roll to each other over your misogynist thoughts which come tumbling unbidden now that your filters are gone. I look at them now and while I can’t quite see our future, I don’t know what our lives will look like with you gone, I know we will stay sisters. We’ve been bonding over the weirdness of you for sixteen years and we will carry each other through. This certainty is a gift you gave me.
“As far as I was concerned, things were already right and my family was already whole. I didn’t have a lot of room in my heart for you at first but you had an ace up your sleeve...my sisters.”
When I went back to college you bought me my first laptop. You said you wanted to make up for not supporting me throughout my life, for not putting me through school. Once in Old Navy you bought me a yellow rain slicker that you said made me look like the Morton Salt girl. I had to look that up but the raincoat warms my heart every time I see it hanging in my hall even though I haven’t worn it in years. When I went for a counseling certification you sent money monthly to put toward my tuition. When I got married, you read the bible verse in our ceremony and danced with me even though dancing became hard after the stroke. You were gracious and respectful about my Dad being the one to walk me down the aisle; you were grateful to be honored and included in the celebration. When I got pregnant you sent my unborn son a blanket printed with your favorite Irish blessing. You called our baby the Little Prince and Womb Nugget and called to ask about the sonograms and the hospital visits. You told me stories about when my sisters were little, the same stories every phone call. Every morning of my adult life you sent a group text to me and my sisters and later my wife too- greeting us, calling us beautiful or gorgeous or telling us to “go pretty up the day.” For awhile I hated those texts, because they reminded me of one of the things I hated about my relationship with you — how it seemed to sit placidly on the surface of a deep and murky pool. How your daughters might be kind and smart and passionate and happy but what really matters to you is that we are pretty. How you love me and my wife but you are far more interested in our son because he is Your Legacy. How you throw money around in your relationships, seeking to buy favor and control. But you can’t work your phone anymore and the texts have stopped and I’m already missing them.
“Go pretty up the day.
For awhile I hated those texts, because they reminded me of one of the things I hated about my relationship with you — how it seemed to sit placidly on the surface of a deep and murky pool.”
A celebration of your sobriety was one of the first AA meetings I went to as an adult. True to AA form, you attracted me to the program by the power of your example. You never pushed me to get sober or judged my using the way my mom did. But I got to watch how you’d built a life out of a pile of rubble. I saw how your daughters loved you despite witnessing and having their childhoods shaped by your addiction. And more than once, sitting in a room watching you get handed a coin, I cried the tears of one who has found their home. When I celebrated my first year of sobriety, you gave me your one-year coin in an embroidered bag. This gift is so huge, so present in my life today. These blessings loom over every moment I have now.
But you also pulled me out of rehab once, because I wasn’t getting better fast enough. At a family therapy session, you got into an argument with my counselor because I wasn’t getting sober just the same way you did. You liked to speak badly of my mother, and my sisters’ mother, to me. Actually, you spoke poorly of nearly all women to me. I’m sure you spoke poorly of me to others. You don’t really like women — you view them as valuable accessories.After you moved to Florida, you obsessed about finding a girlfriend, joined dating websites and thirteenth stepped your drunken blonde housekeeper. You’d call to ramble about the weather in Florida, the first dates you’d been on, how pretty the women were. You never asked about my life. You never had second dates, the weather never changed, the pretty women were always blonde and you never acknowledged that you were ninety-eight percent blind from the stroke. When I called to tell you I was pregnant I had to interrupt you three times before I could get the whole sentence out and tell you that you were going to be a grandfather. And then you started telling me the stories about when your daughters were little. You’d call each week to ask about the baby but you never listened to my answers.
And when you got sick, we flew down to help you. You were using. Eighteen years sober, you were riddled with cancer and you were using. Your pain was so great it was the only solution you could see and I can appreciate that. But let’s also acknowledge that you didn’t give us any forewarning. Your sober daughter brought her sober wife and their three month old baby to your home for a week to help you prepare to return home to die, and you didn’t think to warn them that there were drugs around, specifically your daughter’s drug of choice. Well actually that’s wrong. I’m going to make an educated guess here: you thought to but you didn’t. You needed our help and you were scared we wouldn’t come so you didn’t tell us. Your fear led you to put your own desires above your concern for others. You put my sobriety at risk and that made me angry with you. And you’re dying so being angry with you doesn’t feel particularly safe. The angry can’t go anywhere. You were desperate, a wounded animal, cornered. I’m healthy, strong, and still sober.
“You were using. Eighteen years sober, you were riddled with cancer and you were using.”
You love us so much but you don’t know who we are. This hurts me less than it hurts my sisters. Because this afternoon when you told the story of baby Lizzie throwing up on your Armani suit for the twentieth time this week, I saw the tears in her eyes and I know they’re because you don’t have any favorite stories from her adulthood or even her adolescence, and she’s twenty seven years old. There was a lot of life between sweet baby Lizzie puking on your fancy suit and this moment now but you don’t remember those parts because they aren’t as pleasing to you. Those memories didn’t stick. You don’t really know what to do with your woman daughters except tell them they’re beautiful and talk about when they were babies. And when I see my sisters’ tears I feel guilty. Because while I’m losing you too, I still have my dad, who sees me and knows me, and you’re all they’ve got in the father department.
You’ll only be here a little while longer, anyone can see that. It’s in your hollow eyes and the way your knees are the widest part of your legs by far. I don’t know what I’m going to feel when you finally die. The months of emergency mode are wearing on me. Someone asked me if there was anything left unsaid, anything I needed to say before you go, and I thought awhile before I answered No. My feelings about you are complicated but they’re not really your business. I would do no service by sharing them with you. You know that I love you and I will keep your memory alive for your grandson. I know that you love me the best way you’ve ever known how. And that has to be enough, for both of us, because that’s all we are getting.
-Your 3rd Daughter